The Evolution of Autonomous Drones

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The use of drones has now become common knowledge to the extent that they are being embraced in a number of commercial applications such as real estate, media (paparazzi), and delivering pizzas (once regulators give clearance.) One enthusiast even delivered the rings to his brother’s wedding. Everyone in attendance reportedly thought “it was pretty awesome.” (Source)

National Geographic recently even pointed out some positive uses beyond the military for micro-drones such as hurricane hunting, 3-D mapping, search and rescue, agriculture and protecting wildlife. (source)

However, drones continue to evolve in tandem with advancements in robotics and computing toward some very hands-off applications. Instead of a glorified remote-controlled hobby craft, drones are becoming autonomous both in flight and decision making.

To be sure, the evolution of drones toward full autonomy is a stated goal by the military, which has been working for some time on implementing a true Terminator-like Skynet Global Digital Defense Network.

An article from Aviation Week cites the desire to “reduce the burden” on humans (i.e. eliminate them) by creating autonomous systems that can work together to make decisions on their own. A computer network matched with “swarm” drones could provide an autonomous communication between robots and computers to form a “net” of redundant data collection, analysis, and military response.

Retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, who was the Air Force’s first chief for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance, indicates the inefficiencies of having a “man-in-the-loop” — in other words, a human. Secondly, he indicates that this use goes beyond war zones, and into “permissive airspace.” Now that we know Congress has officially welcomed drones to America, the following discussion should be particularly concerning:

“We need to have a balanced capability to operate remotely piloted aircraft both in permissive airspace and contested airspace,” he says, adding that one of the greatest weaknesses of the fleet is that every platform has to be controlled by an operator on the ground. “Those linkages are vulnerable to jamming. To counter that you need to move toward a greater degree of autonomy, but along with moving to autonomy you’ll encounter a variety of policy issues that when you have a man-in-the-loop you don’t have to worry about that much.”

With this as the backdrop, a recent announcement about self-assembling autonomous drones further indicates where this technology is heading:

Researchers at ETH Zurich have demonstrated an amazing capability for small robots to self-assemble and take to the air as a multi-rotor helicopter. Maximilian Kriegleder and Raymond Oung worked with Professor Raffaello D’Andrea at his research lab to develop the small hexagonal pods that assemble into flying rafts. (Source)

That video can be seen here:

A new quadcopter developed by The Virtual-Reality-Team at Vienna University of Technology has been successful eliminating the middle man by putting all of the computing power at the ready by essentially equipping the drone with a smartphone.

The core element — and the most expensive part of the quadcopter — is a smartphone. Its camera provides the visual data and its processor acts as the control center. The quadcopter’s intelligence, which allows it to navigate, was coded in a smartphone-app. In addition, a micro controller adjusts the rotor speed, so that the quadcopter flies as steadily as possible. 

The quadcopter was designed to work indoors, even in small rooms. This is a major challenge; especially close to walls or corners, aerodynamics can be much more tricky than in open space. Apart from that, the quadcopter cannot make any use of GPS data, it has to rely entirely on visual data. 

To test the quadcopters navigational capabilities, the team attached visual codes to the floor, similar to QR-codes. Hovering above these codes, the quadcopter recognizes them, obtains information and creates a map of its environment. Once it has created a virtual map of the codes on the floor, it can head for a specific known location or go on exploring areas it has not yet checked out. 

“In the future, the quadcopter should also be able to do without these codes. Instead, we want it to use naturally occurring reference points, which can be obtained from the camera data and also from depth sensors such as the MS Kinect,” says Annette Mossel, chief engineer of the quadcopter project. (Source)

The march toward drone autonomy is happening at both the largest and smallest scale — in both military and civilian applications. The low-cost and manageability of copters and micro-drones makes them perfect for delivery systems and hand-held search and rescue or police applications.

However, “fixed wing aircraft” is a greater challenge, but is yet another area where there is rapid development. The Navy was successful in its test of Northrop Grumman’s X-47B aircraft which took off and landed at the Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md.

General Atomics sees this as part of the future of autonomous warfare in this rather disturbing promo of where these systems could be by 2017:

In just the last few years a “smarter, faster autonomous helicopter” has become ready to take flight, as announced in Popular Mechanics. As they mention, while high-altitude aircraft are able to avoid many earth-bound dangers, helicopters are more prone to wind and weather issues, as well as the physical elements such as canyons, mountains and trees. The software and hardware behind this craft is called Matrix and will be fully tested in the near future:

The team plans to test it out in the UH60M Black Hawk helicopter this fall, when they’ll demonstrate autonomous cargo pickup and delivery. Next year, the plan is to take Matrix for a flight under brown-out conditions, as well as practice landing on the decks of ships. By the sounds of it, they’ll have autonomous VTOLs catching up to fixed-wing drones in no time. (Source)

Many have already witnessed the huge level of police helicopter traffic in places like Los Angeles; one can only imagine if those tasks are made easier through automation how prevalent they could become.

For now, the focus is officially on search and rescue and all of the great things that drones could offer for our service and protection. How about flying into a city blasted by a nuke or dirty bomb? It’s being proposed.

Combined with the coolness factor being pushed in the commercial areas, it looks like drones are here to stay and evolve to whole new heights. As drone expert, P.W. Singer said, “At this point, it doesn’t really matter if you are against the technology, because it’s coming.”

And here is the dark side of what else might be coming as drones evolve to where they mimic nature itself:

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